The Norse Structure- Origins of Patriarchy?
In an effort to understand how my family's Danish witchcraft tradition was originally practiced, I tried to uncover the geographical and cultural relationship between the early Danish and other local European traditions. This led me to pursue Germanic and Slavic and even Russian roots, seeking a link to the system used in Ancient Denmark and surrounding areas. The most obvious connection was to the Norse or Teutonic traditions, so I checked into that first. What I found was a puzzle that went back almost to the Last Ice Age.
If all of the world's agriculturally-based societies at the time were matriarchial, how could this one group have evolved into a patriarchial society? Was it because they were nomadic in nature, rather than agricultural? Is it possible that they were at one time matriarchy-based also, and, if so, when did this change to patriarchy come about? What prompted this group to develop different associations to their gods? A different cultural perspective? Different ideas and priorities? Armed with these questions, I went looking for answers.
Most people who study Asatru or Odinism devote their worship to Odin (also known as Odhin or Odhinn) or one of his kindred Gods. There are actually many different gods and goddesses within the Norse Pantheon who are worthy of mention, and I hope to go into them on another page soon. One thing a lot of people overlook is the possibility that Odin or one of his many alter personalities received their powers and authority from a female deity, probably an early form of Freyja (Odin's sister and wife to one of his alter personalities, Odhr) known as Nerthus or Niartha. There is evidence to support the theory that she or someone like her was the primary deity in the Norse pantheon (long before it actually came to be called "Norse") for many centuries before that culture turned to a patriarchial-based system. But as with all historical perspectives, "History is written by the victor."
Patriarchy is the system we see most often today. It is so common, we as a race generally consider it the standard for all time and all places. In truth, all agricultural societies began as matriarchial. Archeological evidence of this goes back more than 25,000 years. In general, these matriarchial societies tended to be more peaceful, art-and-craft oriented, and more prosperous overall. In Matriarchy, the community's women are allotted the roles of leader, priestess, healers, seers, land-owner, etc. Everything or most everything belongs to and passes down to the next generation through the mother, including the children- and is almost always passed to the daughters. Women were allowed and expected to choose their own mates, for either a brief time or for longer periods. Often, they were encouraged to have more than one mate. Throughout much of the world, matriarchy was the way all primitive agricultural peoples ran their communities. One thing I will go into here is the question of how this Kurgan culture is possibly the first European, Russian, or Near Eastern culture that recognized patriarchial-based worship and lineage- and how they spread this belief rampant over Europe and the Near-to-Middle East, possibly even down into Africa and Egypt.
The ancestors of the Nordic traditions were the first known of the
European and Near-to-Middle Eastern community traditions to give up the
matriarchial concept in favor of the patriarchy. Hitler and Neitszche both
considered these peoples to be the "True Aryans", the original
Germanic people. The early North-Central Russian (Kurgan) and Caucasus
tribes that eventually became the Slavic, Nordic, Germanic, and Teutonic
tribes made the switch to Patriarchy (Father- or Male- lineage power-base)
long before any others- possibly as early as 5000-7000 BC. In fact, they
are credited with bringing the idea of patriarchy to the Near and Middle
Eastern, Egyptian, Persian, Sumerian, and many other peoples.
I had to wonder, "How far back did this obviously-different-for-the-time-period Patriarchy-based system truly go?" Some indications of their patriarchial society date back to about 9000 BC, but the evidence is so scant and inconclusive it's impossible to say for sure. Archeological digging on the Russian Steppes is somewhat time-consuming and tedious, as the land is perpetually frozen and the area is barely habitable. There is a very small window of time that the work may be done. The rest of the year, the sites lie silent and unguarded, ripe for wandering thieves and nomads to take the treasures that may explain some of the larger unanswered questions. Many pieces have been lost to history's eyes because of this.
In my reading, I found this group to be poles apart from the others
of their time period, not only in location but in how they ran their communities
and in their worship. No historians seem to be able to agree on when they
changed from matriarchy- to patriarchy- based culture and worship, as these
people were very nomadic and left few records. It seems the common historical
viewpoint is that sometime during the end of the last Ice Age, things got
a little tough for the tribes of the Northern and Central areas of Russia.
The Earth was changing- there were often earthquakes, big glaciers were
moving around, food was scarce- they were not pleased by this. They became
grumpy and hostile, determined their system of religion and culture wasn't
working for them, and decided to make some changes. These tribes became
what we now call the Kurgans, about 3000-4000 years later. It is noted
that they began to worship Thunder and Sky gods sometime during this change
in social structure. I found that interesting as a side-note, since the
ancient Norse and Vikings also believed the Gods lived in the sky's Northern
Lights, the Aurora Borealis. Did this idea originate with the Sky God concept
of the ancient Kurgans? There is also some discussion among historians
as to whether these people are also somehow culturally related to the Hebrews,
which is the only other patriarchial tribe of the same time period- also
very aggressive and run exclusively by male priests and generals.
It is recognized that the Kurgans were very war-like and it is said they rode "two-abreast in horse drawn chariots", wreaking havoc on their less war-like southern neighbors. They began to wage war on the tribes to the South of them sometime around 4300 BC, as noted by art and written texts. This may not be the earliest meetings of these two widely different cultures, but is the first noted on archeological record as when war began to take place betweeen the two different cultures. Also, they were said to be very aggressive in their war efforts- in the relics of their camps, the bulk of the bodies would often be non-Kurgan females, indicating they took slaves as prizes and killed mostly the men and children of their foes when they went to war. These tribes tended to stamp out completely the religions of their conquered foes, replacing it with their own. They usually did one of two things- A) married their princes to the priestesses of the conquered foes, thus becoming the central power figure, or B) completely destroyed the temples and forced the priestesses into harems of a sort or had them killed. Occassionally, a prince-priestess marriage would yield a son, who took over the power of the community leadership instead of his father taking control.
Typically, this is how Goddess-based religion was destroyed the world over. The male deity (the conquering prince) was married to or born from the Goddess (the community High-Priestess), and usurps her power or kills her to remove her from power, thus taking her place. Bingo- no more Goddess worship, no more ladies in power in the community; no more female rights to possession or advancement or family artifacts, estates, or power. Usually this switchover would take only a few generations to accomplish- it was very swift and sure, and very deadly to the ones who clung to the "older" path. This is also how early Christianity dispersed with much of the goddess-worshipping sect- by implying that their god was born of woman, and so assumes her power. When you think about it, even the most powerful Christian sect still reveres the female that gave birth to their god. Early Catholicism kept Mary Mother of Jesus around because it was easier to convert and integrate heathens to a church that already had female symbolism present than to expect them to give up everything they were familiar with. In effect, The Catholic Church never truly denounced goddess-worship! It is still being practiced, only to a lesser degree and in different ways.
I have doubts that this group, the Kurgans, was always patriarchial,
but that is largely based on some recently-dug archeological sites in Russia,
consisting of female warrior graves complete with horses (the legendary
Valkyries?), some other sites where the inhabitants of the graves appear
to be almost entirely female royalty (with no evidence of male counterparts)
dating back to roughly 2500-2000 BC, and the existence of the Seidre,
who go back several thousand years and were almost exclusively female until
around 200 -500 A.D. It is said they received their special power and ability
from the early form of Freyja, before Odin was even a demi-god. For over
two thousand years, Odin has been given credit for being the primary discoverer
of the Runes and the abilities of astral sight and travel, as gifts to
the Seidre. These traits had been around for at least 3000-4000 years,
already given to the Seidre by Nerthus/Niartha.
Odin is even credited with having the extraordinary ability of changing his sex at will. This is a convenient and often-used way of negating the idea that a female goddess had previously been more important in an early people's lives. Interestingly, here in the Norse Pantheon we again see the typical pattern of patriarchial takeover- the male god (Odin) is born from or marries the female head goddess (Niartha/Nerthus/Freyja). Also interestingly, Freyja is said to be constantly wandering, searching for her husband Odhr, who is none other than her brother (another often-used formula in mythology) Odin in an alter personality! While the female deity is relegated a silly, mundane task like tracking down her husband, the male deity eventually takes over and all the deeds previously attributed to the female goddess become the credits of a male deity. Suddenly the whole pantheon is male-dominated- and the community that followed them becomes that way as well, with few exceptions.
So, if this is the case, what happened to the worship of Niartha/Nerthus? She is still somewhat respected in the Norse Pantheon, as The Original Mother Earth- apparently, more often thought of as an island, one part of a dual-gender deity (the male aspect is called Njord, The Water, though he is considered a god in his own right) - the original meeting of Water and Earth, the "Primal Soup," so to speak. The names are actually irrelevant- they are both derivatives of another word that is used for both male and female- Nerthuz. There is one tale of Njord begetting Freyja and Freyr on a "nameless sister". The older tradition of Royal Sacrifice, or King-Killing, comes into play here as well- one of the most important symbols of Nerthus is a necklace, much like the one Freyja is said to have possessed. In the Ynglinga Saga, a necklace is a bridal gift to a young woman from her father, and is later mentioned in a long line of mysterious deaths of kings of the Ynglings by their brides. This tale hearkens back to the early rituals of king-death (most often as tribute to the goddesses Ishtar, Astarte, or Inanna) by their high priestess. This is usually as a sacrifice following the Great Rite. Of course, the "son" born of their union will be sacrificed again at the appropriate festival, in the form of another king's body.
I suspect the stories all originated in the same place, many, many centuries before- only the names were changed as the roving bands dispersed and settled different areas of Europe, Russia, and the Near and Middle East. Most of these roving bands settled and kept the old religion, applying new names to their goddesses as they went. The Kurgans, and subsequently the Norse and Teutonic and Germanic peoples, apparently did not keep the old belief system. They chose to re-invent the stories to reflect a male-dominant perspective that suited their society and war-like nature. It seems very fitting of the ones we now call the Vikings.
Information for this text was gathered from many different sources over several years:
Discovery Channel, Special on the Russian Steppes Burials, approx. 1995 or 1996
National Geographic Magazine, (unknown edition) Russian Steppes Burials, 1995 or 1996
When God Was A Woman by Merlin Stone, Harcourt Brace and Co., 1976
The Chalice And The Blade by Riane Eisler, Harper Collins, 1987
Teutonic Magic by Kveldulf Gundarsson, Llewellyn Publications, 1994
Falcon Feather And Valkyrie Sword by D.J. Conway, Llewellyn Publications,
The Golden Bough by James George Frazer, Macmillan Publishing, 1922
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